05/09/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Spring Gardening 2010: Compost Is In, Chemicals Are So Out!

More and more home gardeners are interested in growing their own food this year. Plant nurseries and seed companies are already showing sales of vegetable seedlings and fruit trees on the rise this spring. For the most part, this is fantastic news. Bring me more garden geeks! But here's my dilemma. Are home gardeners going to be hoodwinked into buying more chemicals to feed their crops and contaminate their entire zip codes or will they smarten up and go organic?


Garden tip of the day: If you're going to grow food in your backyard, you must grow it organically. This means without synthetic fertilizers and chemicals pesticides. If you're not going to grow your food organically, I'd rather you choose a different hobby. Try knitting or name-dropping. Or, how about Hacky Sack?

As a master gardener, garden author, dirt diva, mom and a relentlessly annoyed ex-New Yorker, I'm telling it to you straight up. If you're not going organic in your backyard, you're part of the problem, not part of the solution. And, that's lame. Gardening with chemicals is so 1960's. That should have gone out with Beatle boots and bell-bottoms! It's not your fault, really. Chemical companies have huge marketing budgets purposely driven to brainwash you while us organic gardeners, well . . . all we've got are earthworms, aged horse manure and a rickety old compost tumbler.
Fire it up!

Here's a little ecological update to get you up to speed. Here where I live in the Bay Area, where we're a bunch of iphone-toting-treehuggers, every single creek is contaminated with high levels of pesticides including diazinon, a chemical that was banned almost ten years ago because of its toxicity to mammals. Of the 80,000 registered chemicals in the United States, scientists and environmental advocates say the EPA has evaluated only 200 and banned only 5 since the 1976 chemical law was enacted. ( We all blame the farmers and industry for polluting our soil, air and water, and they all do contribute to our pollution mess, but you may be shocked to learn that home gardeners are using 3-6 times more pesticide per acre than the average farmer. And home owners may also be shocked to learn that many of those pesticides stocked in your garage were originally developed in Nazi Germany to be used as chemical weapons. There are more than 20,000 pesticide products now marketed in the United States.
Other than shoes, who needs 20,000 of anything?

Just last week an article in Science Daily reported on a new study conducted by biologists at the University of California at Berkeley. They found that atrazine, one of the world's most widely used pesticides, emasculates three-quarters of adult male frogs and turns one in 10 into female frogs.

More and more research is showing that atrazine interferes with endocrine hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone in fish, amphibians, birds, reptiles, laboratory rodents and even human cell lines at levels of part per billion. (Science Daily, March 1, 2010)

Atrazine is found in 70% of U.S. water and is banned in Switzerland where the product is made and sold by Syngenta, the largest agrichemical corporation in the world. Pediatricians I've interviewed in the past for my Dirt Diva garden column in the Pacific Sun, say this is the sickest generation of kids they have seen. 1 out of 80 boys is now born autistic. 1 out of 8 children has asthma. Kids have all sorts of neurological problems that school nurses and medical professionals say they weren't trained to deal with. A study conducted by Environmental Working Group in 2006, studied the umbilical cord blood of ten babies in the womb, and found that they each had close to 300 chemicals already in them before they were born. In other words, we're birthing pre-polluted babies.

"If babies are exposed in the womb or shortly after birth to chemicals that interfere with brain development, the consequences last a lifetime," says Dr. Philip Landrigan, professor of pediatrics at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine and chairman of the school's department of preventive medicine.

Enough with all the Debbie-Downer facts. Who wants facts, any way? "I thought she was going to teach us how to grow tomatoes and petunias?," you're thinking. I will, but not till I get your garden into rehab. Simmer down!

In her timely and enlightening new book, Organic Manifesto, author, farmer and CEO of Rodale Inc., Maria Rodale, writes of the 'Farming System Trial' that her father, Robert Rodale began in 1990. It's now the longest running scientific study comparing 'synthetic-chemical' versus 'organic' agriculture. The trial clearly shows that organic farming is not only more productive than chemical farming, especially during times of flood or drought, but that soil farmed organically is a key component to solving our climate crisis. When we add layers of compost to our soil it feeds the millions of microorganisms who party like rockstars in healthy soil. Some of these organisms, such as 'Mycorrhizal fungi' grow at the roots of plants and store carbon. A lot of carbon. These miraculous fungi build our soil and its health while also sequestering excess carbon, shlepping it underground and locking it up. Tada! Many of these beneficial microbes don't exist in conventional farming because chemical fertilizers and herbicides eradicate them.

"What is wrong with us? Why do we seem to care so little about our own safety, our own health, and the future of our children?," asks Maria Rodale in her new book. "Why are we willing to pay thousands of dollars for vitro fertility treatments when we can't conceive, but not a few extra dollars for the organic food that might help to preserve the reproductive health of own and future generations?"

For crying out loud folks, let's get off the sauce, before Maria, yours truly and the rest of our kind come chase you down hurling handfuls of shade-grown, fair-trade, free range, grass-fed mud!

Your new mantra should be 'COMPOST, COMPOST, COMPOST.' And just what is compost? Some say it's black gold. I say, it's fabulous! Compost is a rich soil amendment that is created by recycling food scraps and yard waste. Compost will slowly feed your plants while helping your soil retain water as well. (A must for gardeners in the drought-prone western U.S.) Adding a 2-3 inch layer of compost to your yard once in the spring and again in the fall will keep the happy microbes and earthworms busy underground, breaking down the organic material into nutrients that will nourish your plants for months. You can make your own compost (and earn a gold star from me) or buy it from your local garden center. In some forward-thinking towns the local recycling or refuse center will sell compost inexpensively while helping to keep more garbage out of the landfill. It's win-win! Less landfill in your community and free fertilizer for your yard.

Lastly, carefully pack up that shed full of chemical warfare and call 1-800- CLEANUP to find out where to dispose of hazardous wastes in your neck of the woods. Using a pesticide in your yard should be a very last resort and the safest, most natural product should be chosen. Contact your local Master Gardening office for free help with plant problems. (Find your local office at the American Horticultural Society's website: (Find cleaner and safer gardening product suggestions at

If you live in the Bay Area, come to my Talking Dirt booksigning at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show on Saturday, March 27th, 2010. I'll be speaking at a seminar called Organic Gardening: Working with Nature, Even if you're from New York City and signing books after. (

See ya next week with vegetable gardening growing tips.
Good luck sweet kumquats.